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Passport to North America

by Mike Vogel / Washington Capitals
If Viktor Dovgan’s ever achieves his goal or playing in the NHL, he will have taken one of the more interesting and circuitous routes of getting to the highest league.

Mere days after the conclusion of the 2004-05 lockout, the 30 NHL teams hastily assembled in Ottawa for the NHL draft. Normally held in June in a large NHL arena with scores of players and their friends and families in attendance, the 2005 draft was conduced in a large hotel conference room with just a few of the top-end draftees present.

The Caps loaded up on defensemen at that draft, choosing a blueliner with each of their first four picks in 2005. Washington also exercised its last pick (a seventh-rounder) on a defenseman in that draft, namely Dovgan. But when Washington announced Dovgan’s name as the 209th overall pick in that draft, the NHL ruled the choice ineligible. The league’s Central Scouting Burean had Dovgan’s birthday listed as Dec. 27, 1987, which would have made him ineligible (too young) for the 2005 draft. Players born after Sept. 15, 1987 were not eligible to be selected in the 2005 draft.

However, Washington had information to the contrary.

The Caps and their scouts had seen Dovgan’s passport and knew that his CSB birthdate was erroneous. Dovgan’s actual birthdate is Feb. 27, 1987, and the Caps believed that Dovgan would have been a third- or fourth-round pick in 2006, and therefore was worth spending a seventh-rounder on in 2005. The Caps’ choice of Dovgan was listed as “invalid” in the immediate aftermath of the draft. But Washington was subsequently able to provide the NHL with documentation of Dovgan’s correct birthdate. Some seven weeks after his name was called in that hotel conference room, Dovgan’s rights were officially awarded to the Capitals.

It has been exactly three years to the day (Sept. 16, 2005) since Dovgan was awarded to Washington, and his hockey road has taken a few twists and turns since. The 21-year-old defenseman is here at Kettler this week as one of nine blueliners participating in the team’s annual rookie camp.

Dovgan spent the 2005-06 season in his native Russia. He then signed an entry level pact with the Capitals and came to North America to start his career on this side of the ocean in the fall of 2006. Dovgan spent most of the 2006-07 season with the Caps’ South Carolina affiliate of the ECHL. He totaled five goals and 11 points to go along with 95 penalty minutes in 56 games with the Stingrays.

“There’s a big difference because of the smaller ice rink,” says Dovgan, through an interpreter, when asked about the adjustment to North American hockey. “And the speed is much faster. There is a lot of physical play and quick passes. For the entire first month, I was just trying to adjust to the North American style of hockey.”

The defenseman believes he could have had a better season in his first year as a North American pro if not for the length adjustment period.

“Because there were so many things that were new to me, I could have done better without those distractions,” he says. “I could have done better if not for the adaptation period.”

Dovgan concluded that 2006-07 season by playing in one game with the AHL Hershey Bears. Even though it was just one game, there was another adaptation period involved in the jump from the ECHL to the AHL.

“Big difference,” exclaims Dovgan. “Very big difference. In South Carolina it was more laid back. You had a little bit of extra time to get the pass or make a pass. But coming up to Hershey, you can’t even put your head down or else you will get hit. It’s a lot quicker in the AHL.”

Washington hoped to have the young defenseman in North America again last season, but he opted to remain in Russia at the last minute. He played his first season in the Russian Super League, skating with CSKA and staying close to his wife and young son.

“It was very difficult,” says Dovgan of the year in Russia. “I had a lot of trust from the folks in Carolina and a lot of playing time. In Moscow at the start of the season, it didn’t look like I had the same kind of trust. They did not let me play on the power play and did not let me play shorthanded. But eventually I thought I got on better terms with them and they started to trust me a little bit more.

“I feel a lot better now and a lot stronger. One year in adult hockey really does a lot for you. I’m not junior age anymore. So I’m stronger and I’m bigger now.”

Over this past summer, Dovgan trained with Caps’ star winger Alex Ovechkin in preparation for his return to North America.

“It was very difficult at the beginning,” Dovgan admits. “I tried to keep up with him, but Sasha is Sasha. He is who he is; he is the best player in the world. I tried to keep up with him. I tried to do the same cross-country training and the same gym training as he did and in the end, I was getting a little bit up there. It was good motivation for me to go up against a guy like him.”

Ovechkin saw some good things in Dovgan, too.

“I know he’s a pretty tough D who can hit guys,” says Ovechkin. “He has a good chance to play in the NHL, but I think he has to wait maybe a couple years to get much bigger and much stronger. He has a great future. It’s all up to him.”

Dovgan realizes it is up to him, but believes he’s ready for the physical aspects of the NHL.

“I just have to be quicker when I think, when I pass, when I make decisions,” says the thickly built blueliner. “I just have to be quicker. Physically, I’m fine. I’m there. I just need to be quicker.

“It’s training. It all depends on me. If I train and train, I will get there.”

“I think he’s a really smart player,” says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. “I think he is going to be a competitive, competitive player.”

Dovgan is known as a bruiser, a guy who likes to launch his body at onrushing forwards and opposing wingers who are trying to dig pucks out of the corners. But the players he idolized growing up in Russia are a diverse group.

“[Darius] Kasparaitis. [Sergei] Gonchar. [Scott] Niedermayer,” he says, when asked to name his favorite NHL defenders as a kid. “A lot of people look back to the 1970s and 1980s. But I look forward to the 21st century. My favorite defenseman is Gonchar.”

For the upcoming 2008-09 season, Dovgan will compete for a spot on the crowded Hershey Bears blueline. Dovgan was asked about playing in Hershey, but the defender deftly dodged the question.

“I’d rather play in Washington,” he says in English, with a grin and a twinkle in his eye.

Dovgan's passport helped get him drafted. Now, If he can set it aside for a while and put together a solid year or two on this side of the pond with the Bears, he’ll get a chance here in the District.

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